2024 Survey of Provosts Reveals Interesting Insights on How Campuses are Dealing with AI, Diversity, Free Speech and Financial Challenges

Inside Higher Ed, together with Hanover Research, recently released its annual Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers, providing insight into the priorities of and challenges facing higher education institutions. With 331 provosts fully or partially completing surveys (a 13% response rate), the survey covered a wide range of topics including artificial intelligence, diversity, equity, and inclusion, campus speech, the future of academic programs, and more. While the comprehensive key findings and data tables can be found in the report, below is a highlight of several major areas.

Artificial Intelligence: Artificial intelligence continues to be an evolving focus at many institutions. 92% of provosts responded that faculty and staff members asked for additional training related to the developments in generative AI. Seventy-eight percent (78%) have offered training in response to faculty concerns or questions about generative AI within the last 18 months and an additional 20% have planned training. For students, only 14% of provosts said that their institution has reviewed the curriculum to ensure that it will prepare students for AI in the workplace, though 73% plan to do so. The use and future of AI is far from settled. Although 47% of provosts are moderately concerned, 20% very concerned, and 6% extremely concerned about the risk generative AI poses to academic integrity, only 20% of institutions have published a policy or policies governing the use of AI, including in teaching and research. An additional 63% have a policy under development. However, in contrast to those concerns, 40% of provosts are moderately enthusiastic, 32% very enthusiastic, and 11% extremely enthusiastic for AI’s potential to boost their institution’s capabilities. Several institutions are using AI for virtual chat assistants and chatbots, research and data analysis, Learning Management Systems, predictive analytics to predict student performance and trends, and in other capacities. This is an area where we can expect rapid developments in the coming months.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: The survey responses highlighted a gap between what provosts see as the state of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education versus what they see on their own campuses. While most provosts (60%) rated race relations on college and university campuses as a whole as fair (and only 27% as good and 2% as excellent), 61% responded that the state of race relations on their campus is good and 10% excellent. In terms of racial diversity and diversity and inclusion efforts, 61% of provosts agreed or strongly agreed that last year’s Supreme Court decision on affirmative action will decrease student racial diversity in higher education as a whole. However, only 11% agreed or strongly agreed that it will decrease student racial diversity at their own institution. Furthermore, only 10% responded that their institution has curtailed its diversity and inclusion efforts beyond admissions in response to the decision or from pressure from lawmakers. Those that have scaled back diversity and inclusion efforts beyond admissions have done so in training programs (44%), faculty or staff hiring (35%), scholarship and financial aid (32%), leadership positions (24%), curriculum development (18%), and other areas. Of course, in some states, university-level DEI efforts have been curtailed by state governments.=

Campus Speech: Only 26% of provosts rated the climate for open inquiry and dialogue in higher education generally to be good, with an additional 1% as excellent. However, regarding their own institutions, 52% rated the climate on their own campus as good and 10% as excellent. Institutions have taken steps to educate students, faulty, and staff about the importance of free speech and to prepare them to engage with those with whom they disagree by offering faculty training on facilitating difficult dialogues/constructive conversations in the classroom (55%, though only 5% required training), offering staff training (38%, with 5% required), establishing a voluntary difficult dialogues/constructive conversation initiative on campus (36%), and embedded training into first-year seminar/program (17%), freshman orientation (16%), and curriculum beyond the first year (12%). About a quarter (26%) have not taken steps. Seventy-three percent (73%) agree or strongly agree that they have a plan in place for addressing student complaints about a professors’ speech in the classroom. However, only 36% agree or strongly agree that they have a clear response plan in place for addressing student complaints about professors’ extramural speech. 61% agree or strongly agree that they have a plan in place for addressing complaints about individual students’ speech and 58% for student organizations’ speech. 39% somewhat or strongly agree that current world events have stressed their institutions speech policies to the point that they may need to be revisited. With the upcoming 2024 election, 24% are moderately, 25% very, and 28% extremely concerned about the 2024 election results affecting the climate of free inquiry and civil dialogue at their institution. It is likely that some of these numbers would change now given ongoing Congressional hearings, encampments and campus building take-overs by protesters. 

Academic Programs and Faculty: The survey addresses several areas concerning faculty and staff retention, faculty tenure, and the state of academic departments. Financial concerns (revenue, market opportunities, profit, etc.) are prevalent in most institution discussions about launching new academic programs (31% agree and 51% strongly agree). Seventy-four percent (74%) agreed or strongly agreed that most new funds for academic programs will come from reallocation rather than from new revenues. Thirty-five percent (35%) agreed or strongly agreed that their institution is likely to reduce the number of academic programs by the end of the 2024-25 academic year, with 41% agreeing or strongly agreeing that their institution should reduce the number.  Additionally, 64% agree or strongly agree that their institution is seeing higher-than-usual staff turnover rates, and 35% agree or strongly agree for faculty. The survey also inquired further about the importance of tenure, faculty models, and long-term contracts, in addition to other areas impacting institutions throughout the nation. 

The topics raised are among the most critical challenges facing higher education involving the provosts/chief academic officers.  The Association of Chief Academic Officers (ACAO) offers a collegial forum for the open exchange of ideas and sharing of best practices among the academic leadership of large and small, and public and private colleges and universities across the country. 

Gabrielle A. Rosenblum, Special Assistant to the Provost, Touro University 
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